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How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Film Review

The environmental thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a breathless, roaring film, both in its thrilling scenes of tension and urgent messages surrounding the climate crisis.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a tense eco-thriller. It is an urgent call to arms. It is a righteously angry, embattled response to the world’s worsening climate crisis. It is an ensemble piece with plenty of in-depth character studies. Daniel Goldhaber’s (CAM) multifaceted film is many things, and all of these various elements are handled so impressively. Inspired by Andreas Malm’s manifesto of the same name, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is one of the most utterly compelling films of the year so far and, most notably, is as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. Even when the credits roll at the end of the film, the ferocious sense of urgency and immediacy remains.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is adapted from the novel by Goldhaber, Jordan Sjol and Ariela Barer (she also plays Xochitl in the film). A group of young people resort to sabotage – specifically, blowing up a pipeline – in an effort to disrupt the oil industry and highlight the environmental crisis facing the planet. As one character proclaims, if the American government sees what they’re doing as terrorism, then they must be doing something right. Their backstories and motives might be different, but their end goal remains the same. The trio of screenwriters impressively structure the film, flitting between flashbacks that give ample background and context to the ensemble of characters right back to the present, showing the actual act of their sabotage. Their struggle is intense, intimate, and intricate.

This structure is given even more potency by Daniel Garber’s (Some Kind of Heaven) editing, which abruptly cuts off at the tensest moments in the present; by flashing back suddenly to the characters’ pasts, we gain more immediate understanding as to why they are in this dangerous, deadly situation, and we are also given temporary, mini cliffhangers to sit with. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is taut in every sense, the camera moving with a restless energy; as the suspense tightens, it closes in on the characters. We are unable to escape as a viewer, just like them. Even though the target is a pipeline and not a bank, How to Blow Up a Pipeline operates with the slickness of a heist thriller. At times, it feels like a bold, Texan-set remolding of a Michael Mann film.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
How to Blow Up a Pipeline (Vertigo Releasing)

Each actor brings something unique to the film, but standouts include a magnetic Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant) as Michael, a Native American angered by destructive oil refineries near his home, an emotive Barer as Xochitl, a student mobilised after her mother dies, and a fierce Sasha Lane (American Honey) as Theo, whose leukemia diagnosis spurs her into action. Theo and Xochitl are childhood friends, growing up in Long Beach, California in an area with toxic pollution. As a whole, the ensemble of How to Blow Up a Pipeline click perfectly, their characters’ time spent together as a group fleeting, but the impact of their actions immense. Again, Goldhaber’s keen eye for spotlighting the worsening climate crisis is shown when capturing these actors – emotional, personal scenes see humans set against imposing, ugly industrial backdrops. The world is oddly alien but unnervingly real.

Despite the thrilling tension and throbbing action, How to Blow Up a Pipeline remains most compelling due to its important messages of environmentalism. Without ever being reductive or simplistic, Goldhaber’s film is, from the outset, a rallying cry to arms. It is a film that should be seen by everyone, because everyone in this situation. Even when How to Blow Up a Pipeline has moments that are slightly on the nose and with its ending that seems slightly rushed, its provocative power never diminishes. Most importantly, Goldhaber, Sjol and Barer do not simplify the struggle; How to Blow Up a Pipeline is inspiring, but not overly or falsely hopeful about the disastrous climate crisis that humans have caused and now must face.

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How to Blow Up a Pipeline was released in UK & Irish cinemas on Friday 21st April, 2023. The film is now showing in US theaters.

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